New group aims to make Chicago the ‘Silicon Valley of food and beverage’

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock/Marchello74
Photo: iStock/Marchello74

Related tags Chicago

Non-profit Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network, backed by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and World Business Chicago, launched last week to establish the Midwestern city as a hub for food manufacturing innovation.

At an invite-only luncheon celebrating the nonprofit’s launch last week, the group announced that it aims to harness Chicago’s many food and beverage companies and turn the Windy City into what Silicon Valley is to tech, Wall Street is to finance, and Hollywood is to entertainment.

“There are lots of things companies can do by themselves, but if we identify only those things, we’re missing on that mission,”​ Alan Reed, executive director of the Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network, told FoodNavigator-USA. “What we’re here to do is specifically find things that companies wouldn’t invest in by themselves or be far too expensive to do by themselves.”

Reed shared examples of projects and initiatives the organization is aiming to do (which will be agreed upon once a board is established). This includes establishing a food manufacturing training institute to ensure a flow of educated labor so that companies don’t have to invest too much in in-house training.

The City of Broad Shoulders—and many food and beverage companies

Attendees of the event represented companies at many levels of the food and beverage supply chain, from ingredient companies like Ingredion to finished product companies like PepsiCo.

“There’s a large concentration of food and beverage companies in the Chicago area, most likely due to the historic place that Chicago has held in transportation, population, and access to agricultural production,”​ said Erica Kuhlmann, Managing Director, Food, Consumer and Agribusiness Group, BMO Harris Bank, at the event.

Known historically for its stockyards, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs today is home to the headquarters of many large multinational food and beverage companies, such as Kraft Foods Group, Mondelez International, and Conagra.

Data presented by the network indicated a total of roughly 4,500 companies, 130,000 employees and $32B in annual sales for Chicago’s food and beverage industry, which covers baked goods, specialty food and ingredients, beverages, meat, poultry, and seafood processing, candy and chocolate, dairy products, packaged fruits and vegetables, and milling of cereal, oilseeds, and sugar.

“However, there is not an organization for Chicago-based food companies to exchange ideas and foster growth,” ​she said, adding that the network provides a platform to “engage the industry, government, and other stakeholders.”

Reed said another main goal is to help make food and beverage companies relocate to the Chicago area easier. “Sometimes those who are operating outside of Chicago don’t know how amazing the whole region is in supporting food and beverage manufacturing,” ​Reed said. After the network’s launch event, Reed realized the bounty of “law firms, insurance firms, and bankers who know a lot about food and can really be an important strategic resource.”

The network has received initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation and the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, the Chicago Tribune reported​.

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